Platoon (1986)

Just a little disclaimer for anyone stumbling upon this review via a search engine. This is the third in a series of reviews discussing Johnny Depp’s acting career. If you’re looking for straight up review of the movie Platoon, you’re probably better off looking elsewhere.

Oliver Stone's Platoon

Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986)

Written and directed by Oliver Stone, Platoon is based on his own experience in the Vietnam War. The film was initially released at Christmas in 1986 in order to qualify for the all important award season. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 4 including Best Picture and Best Director as well as Best Sound and Best Film Editing. Platoon was followed later in 1987 by Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill (1987) both of which featured the Vietnam War as well.

Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen as Chris Taylor

The plot revolves around naive college-aged Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) who volunteers to serve as an infantry man in Vietnam. While the main arc of the story follows Taylor’s transformation from a wide-eyed “cherry” that the regulars ridicule and devalue to a man of action, hardened by the grim realities of war, the plot is driven by the war itself and intense rivalry between Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) and Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger).

Johnny Depp as Pvt. Gator Lerner

Depp’s youthful soldier – Pvt Gator Lerner

Depp turns up in Platoon in a blink-and-you-might-miss-him role as Pvt Gator Lerner,  the platoon’s interpreter. Despite this being his third film, he looks almost younger than in either A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Private Resort (1985) and manages to portray the innocent clean cut American soldier by just walking through the shot.

Lerner Interpreting for Sgt. Barnes

Lerner Interpreting for Sgt. Barnes

Depp’s screen time is limited to two key scenes – the encounter with the villagers where he acts as interpreter and later when he is wounded in the ambush and rescued by Taylor (Charlie Sheen). He pops up in a few other scenes in the background mostly, but if you look hard you catch a glimpse of the real Johnny in the scene during the drug den at base camp when Taylor and King enter. Johnny’s character Gator is sitting on the couch with a guitar and smoking up next to another soldier hot-boxing in a gas mask. This version of Gator appears nothing like the other “clean-cut” version we see in the field – here Gator exhibits more of the Depp flair for fashion that we’ve become accustomed to over the years. He’s sporting a bandanna (pre-Jack Sparrow!), his tattoos are visible in his white wife-beater t-shirt and if it’s not a trick of the light, there might even be some sign of that Johnny Depp scraggly facial growth that he somehow manages to make look manly.

Johnny depp as Lerner

Want a toke?

It’s little wonder that Depp is but a bit player in this movie awash in talented actors with larger parts. Besides the leads Tom Berenger (Sgt. Barnes), Willem Dafoe (Sgt. Elias), and Charlie Sheen (who actually looked like a serious thespian in this movie) the supporting cast is fabulous. Keith David plays the paternal King who takes Sheen’s Taylor under his wing, Forest Whitaker turns up as lovable Big Harold, Kevin Dillon is riveting as the shotgun wielding redneck Bunny, Francesco Quinn as the philosophical drug king Rhah, and John C. McGinley as the fast talking, brown-nosing Sgt O’Neill all command more screen time and juicier roles than Depp and his fellow background players.

Wounded in Action - Lerner being EVACed.

Wounded in Action – Lerner being EVACed.

In Platoon Depp, like his character Lerner, is doing his part, paying his dues and biding his time until he comes into his own. In an Actor’s Studio interview Depp reveals that this film, shot in the Philippines, was his first opportunity to travel outside of the US.

On returning from filming Platoon, Depp received his next big break in his acting career by landing the role of Officer Tom Hanson in an undercover cop drama 21 Jumpstreet that was being debuted by the fledgling Fox network. It’s also coincidentally the topic of discussion for next week’s installment in my year long review of Depp’s acting career.

Edit: Not sure what happeend with the pics in the original post, but they turned out a lot darker than the screen caps originally looked. I’ve since lightened a few of them, hopes it a little more readible now.


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